Friday, December 05, 2008


China is a big country. Though we bandy about the word “Chinese” for its language, Chinese is actually many languages, oftentimes not mutually intelligible. The longer a people sits in one place, the greater their language diverges from the people sitting in the next valley over which diverges from the people on the mountain which diverges from the people across the gorge. Thus, even in supposedly ethnically homogeneous China when travelling from point A to point L one crosses language zones wherein the languages gradually become less and less like each other.

Author Peter Hessler was a peace corps English teacher in China. He has kept up with some of his former students. Used to be people pretty much stayed where they were in China but these days people more readily pick up stakes and move. Sometimes when you go where the jobs are you find yourself moving to a place where the locals speak a language you don’t understand, one that might be as different from your own as German from English.

“Mandarin is the native tongue for people in Beijing and other parts of northern China, and it’s the official language for schools, government bureaus, and most television and radio stations. But hundreds of millions of Chinese grow up speaking something entirely different. The Chinese call these tongues fangyan: often the word is translated as ‘dialect,’ although literally it means ‘speech of a place.’ In fact fangyan are often different spoken languages. … Among the Chinese, Wenzhou is notorious for having some of the most difficult fangyan. Within the city, different regions have distinct sub-fangyan, and none of these tongues is similar to Mandarin. Even somebody like [Hessler’s former student] Shirley – a young woman naturally gifted with languages – could only pick up the basics.”

In a letter to Hessler Shirley recounts cultural differences between herself and her new neighbors, some of which she emphasizes as much as the language problems: “’[After] many months … I can understand some of the simple sentences the natives say. I can basically deal with the trouble happened when I went to the food market.’” The “trouble” seems to include the natives’ weird tastes. “’I don’t like food from the sea although it has high nutrition. I taste it strange.’”

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

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